Patrons of the weekend swap meet held on the Orange County fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. Costa Mesa is in negotiations to buy the fairgrounds from the state. Credit: Violeta Vaqueiro

Costa Mesa City Manager Alan Roeder on Wednesday read out the public ground rules on the city’s behind-the-scenes fairgrounds negotiations with the state.

The city will meet an April 21 deadline negotiated with the state, offering a proposal that would lead to a $100 million public purchase of the fairgrounds, Roeder announced during a special meeting of the city council.

It’s the latest chapter in the fairgrounds saga, which began last May when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced the property was for sale.

Soon after the announcement a group of well-connected Orange County Republicans on the local fairgrounds board hatched a privatization scheme for the property. But public opposition and allegations of conflicts of interest by board members derailed the plan.

Yet legislators authorized the sale as part of the state budget and varied blocks of elected officials and developers have fought over the fate of the property and the fair, mostly behind closed doors.

Earlier this year, the Orange County and Costa Mesa officials began maneuvering to buy the property. But the county officials have since stepped away from the deal — afraid that taxpayers would be hurt. Now it is just Costa Mesa trying to end the uncertainty by convincing the governor to a 30-negotiation period with the goal of buying the property.

The general deal points laid out in public include preserving current operations, a smooth transition and adherence to the city’s general zoning plan for the fairgrounds.

Roeder also said no public funds would be used for the deal.

“The city will seek financing through a current consortium of operators at the site. The ability exists with those parties, as well as others, to put together operations that could support the annual debt service…that is a big-ticket item. And it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of cooperation to make that work.”

And of course, Roeder said, the whole process will be open and transparent.

Then without one comment, council members adjourned into closed session to discuss what’s really going on.

The official council agenda reads that they are only going to talk about the price and terms of payment in private.

Roeder alluded to the real discussion when he told the public before going into closed session, “it’s not simply a real estate deal.”

What’s being discussed is actually marrying taxpayers to an unnamed group of operators who have a current relationship with the fairgrounds and make a binding offer to the governor.

The idea is to put together a complex financing package that would finance city – or a joint public agency – ownership of the fairgrounds. If the governor accepts the offer, then city officials would establish a process for selecting a particular partner.

No public announcement of the contenders in the deal has ever been made.

Last week, the public got a sense of the backdoor negotiations when Planning Commissioner Jim Righeimer accidentally left a voicemail message discussing closed session deliberations with a Voice of OC reporter.

And around that same time, Roeder sent out a private letter to potential bidders advising them of the real ground rules and goals: the city’s interest is in “potentially developing a public/private partnership to acquire and operate the Orange County Fair and Event Center,” read the April 7 letter sent out by Roeder, and obtained by Voice of OC.

“With that in mind, and given the extremely short time frame in which the city has to negotiate the major terms of an agreement with the State of California, we are providing information to you in an effort to guide your formation of a specific proposal for the partnership you envision.”

We ask that given the need to maintain confidentiality of the specifics regarding the city’s negotiations with the state you agree to maintain this request and your response thereto as confidential documents and not discuss your proposal or these negotiations with the public or press. Documents relating to this process except confidential financial information will be available to the public following the conclusion of negotiations and acquisition of the OFEC.”

According to Roeder’s letter, it seems the public will only enter the game once the major players have already been identified.

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